Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tougher Teacher Preparation: The Most Essential Step Toward Better Schools

“When one considers in its length and breadth the importance of a nation’s young, the broken lives, the defeated hopes, the national failures, which result from the frivolous inertia with which (education) is treated, it is difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage”

Alfred North Whitehead
The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929) p.22.

Really want to improve American schooling? Here is the first and most essential step. Recognize that better teachers are the key ingredient for improving our schools; and wake up to the fact that nothing, or at least nothing good, will happen until we strengthen their preparation.

How can this be done? Most undergraduates are too immature, ignorant and unmotivated for serious teacher preparation. What is required is thorough professional preparation in a post-graduate professional school similar to that required of lawyers, medical doctors, veterinarians, opticians, and podiatrists. In other words, make teacher preparation similar to that of trades we really care about.

This is no pipe dream. Advances in the teaching knowledge base make it possible to transform teacher preparation into a meaningfully rigorous and truly empowering process. But instead of exploiting this opportunity, state and federal officials have been fostering lax, disempowering short cuts into teaching.

Not content with the already slap dash preparation offered in undergraduate schools of education, thirty-eight states also offer so-called alternative certification programs as well. Most of these programs are so undemanding they do little or nothing to eliminate incompetence. Despite public rhetoric to the contrary, these short cuts are set up to license “teachers” on the cheap.

If our politicos were really serious about improving the nation’s schools, they would forget about quickie teacher preparation alternatives; close marginal teacher preparation programs at profiteering colleges who specialize in cut-rate certification; and simultaneously set up graduate level professional schools of pedagogy that feature demanding entrance and graduation requirements.

Remember, it took guilds, with their rigorous training, to build enduring masterpieces such as Europe’s great cathedrals. Master glass workers or stone masons certainly didn’t invite “creative, idealistic and enthusiastic” people in off the street, as politicians do with teaching, to try their hand at stained glass or stone carving. They were unrelenting in their apprenticeship requirements and the results speak for themselves. We need a similar approach in teacher preparation.

Sadly, too many public officials have a hidden agenda that is inimical to quality teacher preparation. They want to increase the supply of teachers by cheapening certification requirements. That drives down salaries and cuts the cost of government.

Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that higher salaries would have to be paid for highly trained, deeply committed teachers who really command the skills of their trade. And the average American simply isn’t willing to dig deep enough into their pocket to pay this tab. So there is little political benefit in supporting more rigorous requirements.

What is more, if the people entering teaching are less knowledgeable and less committed to the profession, it weakens teacher unions — a prime goal of Republican politicians whose election bids are routinely opposed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

What needs to be done is obvious. What is equally obvious is that this is not going to happen any time soon. So, in the meantime, our politicians will keep messing about with high stakes tests, charter schools and any other 'remedy' that can be accomplished on the cheap.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Monday, December 8, 2008

A MOST ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How Many Are Truly Educable?

“Essential questions” are much in vogue in teaching. They are intended to guide instruction and help students discover the big ideas that constitute the core of a topic of study. But suppose we apply this methodology to education itself. What is the most essential question we can ask about it? How about this? How many people are truly educable?

Reason and Understanding

What’s the difference between being “educable” and “trainable?” Let’s stipulate that for a person to be “educable” they must be “capable of being improved in ways that depend on reason and understanding.” A trainable person, in contrast, is incapable of being improved in these ways.

Education as Panacea

It must be widely supposed that most people are educable, for Americans have long had a peculiar faith in the power of education. Indeed, it is frequently regarded as the answer for most human difficulties. Consequently our schools are expected to resolve a daunting array of problems such as the cultural integration of immigrants, difficulties with national competitiveness, the elimination of racial injustice, the control of sexually transmitted diseases, and so forth. Indeed, the list of problems thought to be susceptible to educational solution seems almost inexhaustible.

Lack of Education or Educability?

Certainly a great deal of human misery could be prevented if people could be taught to think more deeply and effectively. But is the common failure to do so a consequence of a lack of education as many suppose? Perhaps, just perhaps, the real culprit is a widespread lack of capacity and/or inclination for education. After all, in order for education to be a cure, much less a cure-all, the majority of humans must be capable of sufficient reason and understanding to be improved by that means; plus they also must willing. Suppose this is not the case? Perhaps a great many humans, possibly even most humans, are not truly educable in any deep and abiding sense.

Is such speculation too pessimistic? Perhaps it is; but consider the long-standing popularity of P.T. Barnum’s observation that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Ponder also the durability of H.L. Mencken’s dictum that “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Perhaps these and many similar observations remain current because they are deeply rooted in reality.

Too Dumb, Too Scared, Or What?

This line of reasoning sounds heretical to those accustomed to the obligatory, optimism that engulphs schooling. Nevertheless, there is evidence to support such a view. Consider how many humans willingly trot off to slaughter every time someone idecides to gives a war. And instead of learning from repeated previous slaughters, we humans continue to enthusiastically divide ourselves into pseudo-species, carefully nurture distrust and hatred toward one another, and then, sooner or later, join in still another horrific mutual slaughter that is utterly foreign to any “lesser species.”

For instance, fully fifteen million people were killed and twenty two million wounded in World War I. Yet just nineteen years later homo sapiens (man the thinker?) got himself into a far worse slaughter — WW II, This ghastly tribute to human folly cost 60 million people their lives and loosed hellish suffering on many more. Does any of this sound like the behavior of a species that is educable, i.e. “capable of being improved in ways that depend on reason and understanding?”

On the other hand, how much power did the average person have to change the course of these events? And they only knew what they were told. Perhaps it is true, as radicals have long maintained, that wars are creations of the rich and powerful and serve only their purposes while the rest are forced to “serve.”

Weapons of Mass Destruction

Still, home sapiens displays a peculiar reluctance, or inability, to employ reason and understanding even when the truth is readily apparent. The Harris Poll reported, for instance, that despite repeated official reports that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the belief that Iraq possessed such weapons increased substantially after the war was over and the evidence in.

That’s right, despite massive and widely publicized evidence to the contrary, the number of Americans who thought that Iraq possessed such weapons prior to Operation “Enduring Freedom” actually went up as evidence to the contrary became widely known. As a matter of fact, in February of 2005 only 36% thought Iraq was so armed; but in July of 2006 fully 50% believed they were. Does that sound like a conviction that grew out of widespread capacity for reason and understanding?

To be fair, those who changed their mind about those weapons of mass destruction might have done so out of an unconscious desire to rationalize their own original enthusiasm for the war and/or to justify the tremendous costs it has generated. In short, what seems to be evidence of public credulity might just be people being human, all to human. But that still leaves us wondering why the species is so very eager to cling to the mindless tribalism, hatred and the organized murder we call warfare? Is that evidence of Homo sapiens' educability?

And what about our destruction of the very environment that sustains us? With happy oblivion we are rapidly destroying the basis of our species very existence. In this case, it might turn out that homo sapiens, “man the thinker,” will ultimately prove too dumb to live.

Campaign Appeals

On a less global scale one can also profitably consider the success of political campaign strategies that are based on the principle that many people are fools. In Pennsylvania, for example Senator Rick Santorum cut down challenger Bob Casey’s very substantial lead by means of a $3.5 million TV ad blitz that repeatedly referred to Casey as “Bobby” in order to make him seem juvenile and inconsequential. Casey countered with an equally unsophisticated attack ad. The plain truth of the matter is that ads like this work and work well. Does that suggest there is a great deal of deep thought going on out there?

Of course, political propagandists know how to play on emotions such as fear of the unknown, the alien and the complex. Moreover, the simplicity they offer is beguilingly attractive to a public that has to reach conclusions based on imperfect information and deliberate disinformation. Maybe that, rather than widespread intellectual ineffectiveness, is why the general public remains so exploitable and so oblivious to many urgently important issues. Let’s hope so.

The Media

Evidence of a widespread ineducability is not confined to the repetitive insanity of war, assaults on the environment, or crass political chicanery. Consider, the quality of the media. More specifically, let’s consider infomercials or “paid programming.”
Multiplied millions of dollars are spent buying TV time to peddle bogus nostrums, physical or spiritual, and many, many more millions are realized in consequence. Psychic hotlines generate fortunes for their bogus operators even though they have absolutely nothing but hot air to sell. Omega 3 fish oil is successfully huckstered as a cure for an impossible range of maladies and tens of thousands have been convinced that purging their bowels will have the same beneficial effects on their body that emptying a full sweeper bag can effect for s clogged up Electrolux.

Also consider how dozens of televangelist,s of dubious background and motive, repeatedly and successfully con the public by means of such obvious scams as packets of “miracle spring water,” or dollar green “prosperity prayer cloths”, that allegedly convey magical pecuniary powers. “Pastor, right after I got that prayer cloth a thousand dollars mysteriously appeared in my bank account. Praise God!”

The fact is there is a small army of prosperity “pastors” on TV convincing tens of thousands of financially desperate people that giving generously — to the pastor, of course— will not only eliminate some benighted fools financial troubles but prompt a ten-fold return on their “offering.” One oily, but particularly persuasive, televangelists lives in a multi-million dollar California beach front mansion and flies to world-renown resorts in his private jet. And just today I saw him wheedling still more money out of the faithful so he can buy an even bigger jet —the price tag is nine million dollars! Let’s pump this sacerdotal bunko artist full of truth serum then ask him about the educability of the average American. Can you guess what he would say?

Ponder also the generally appalling quality of media programming in general. TV, for instance, is still the same cultural wilderness it was in 1961 when FCC Chairman Newton Minnow invited us to:

“…sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you--and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials--many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

Newton was right on target until he got to that very last sentence. Since TV bored him, he concluded that the broad masses must also be bored. But Minnow failed to consider that shows remain on the air by virtue of their ratings. TV content is a function of the public tuning in or tuning out. Hence the generally mindless quality of TV programming must be regarded as an indirect index of widespread public preference for drivel. Network executives long ago learned that they pan the most gold by designing a preponderance of their shows for people of limited capacity and less sophistication — i.e. the general public.

Radio programming is similarly selected via public popularity. So what do the masses tune to? Well here in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, home to almost 6 million people, it is unlikely to be classical music because the one commercial station that played it switched to soft rock. Philadelphians can listen to hip-hop, dance, country, soft rock, hard rock, pop/rock, stupidly one-sided right wing “talk” shows and endless gassing about sports, but the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn are out so far as commercial radio is concerned. Why? The broad masses weren’t tuning in. Evidently the broad masses prefer Rap to the Ode to Joy.

The Desolation of the Hinterlands

Keep in mind that even greater desolation exists in the hinterlands where semi-literate pastors read God’s mind for the masses while country music grinds on endlessly in cacophonous concert. That is nearly all there is in the heartland.
To be fair, no one knows for sure how many people are deeply disgusted with this media garbage. And many people might have far better discernment if they had more knowledge to work with. American schooling helps little here. It is woefully inadequate when it comes to the arts and the discernment they can develop and it shies completely away from anything that might help kids see through bogus divines. As a matter of fact, by the time budget cuts slash “frills” from the curriculum, high stakes testing takes its share and the self-appointed censors finish off anything that might trigger thought, the curriculum is a cultural wasteland par excellence. Perhaps, then, we should beware of blaming the victim for the wasteland’s results.

Space does not permit extending these considerations. Suffice it to say that there is abundant evidence of widespread vulnerability, gullibility, wishful thinking and tastelessness among the broad masses. What shall we make of this? Is it evidence of a deeper, fundamental immunity to any and all improvements that depend on reason and understanding? Alternatively, is it the inevitable consequence of a society where avarice trumps all and schooling is generally so narrow and unimaginative that it is unworthy of the name?

general populace has the intelligence and the emotional capacity to be educated in the sense we’ve used it here? You decide.

Friday, November 21, 2008

When Is It Sexual Harassment?

When does touching or sexual humor become sexual harassment? If an employee displays a framed photo of his bikini-clad wife on his desk is that sexual harassment? Is it sexual harassment for a teacher to treat female students different than males? Is it sexual harassment if a male student persistently asks a female student for a date? Are school officials liable if a driver fails to stop alleged sexual insults on a school bus? When does a school curriculum create a sexually "hostile environment?" For answers to these and similar questions refer to:
• the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
• the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education
• federal and state case law
• state anti-discrimination agencies,
• criminal law enforcement agencies
• local institutional policies
Better check them all too, because each may have a different interpretation.
Deciding what should count as "sexual harassment" is highly problematic.

Local level definitions and policies are commonly set out in some sort of Supervisory Guide. I have one such collegiate level "Guide" in front of me. It defines sexual harassment as: "Any unwelcome sexual attention, sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and any other verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature whenever:

a.) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's continued employment: or

b.) submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or

c.) such conduct is intended to, or has the effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance;

d.) such conduct has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment."

The Guide then elaborates.that comments like "you look nice today" are all right if not repeated frequently, but comments like "you look nice today in that tight or short (article of clothing)" are inappropriate and may be sexual harassment."

Let's examine some of this. With regard to leering, for instance, who judges if an alleged glance was sideways or oblique much less motivated by lascivious interest? With regard to touching, who decides when it is "unnecessary?" And who renders the verdict on what is "sexually offensive?" or "inappropriate?" In each and every instance it is: 1. the complainant then 2. some school bureaucrat. (Sense any potential problems here?) Also note that one even has to be careful about saying, "You look nice today." Why? Because the recipient of the compliment and the bureaucrat get to decide if that was said "too often." (Franz Kafka did a lot with this sort of thing.)

There also are procedural problems. The Guide urges anyone "...who believes that they have been or are being sexually harassed to tell the harassor (sic) politely but firmly that his or her conduct is not welcome and must stop." The Guide then confides, "If the conduct persists, or the harassed person is afraid for any reason to confront the harassor ... the individual should bring the problem confidentially to the attention of the Affirmative Action Officer." " This officer, "...will immediately investigate any such allegations of sexual harassment in as confidential a manner as possible. While confidentiality might protect the accused, there is nothing quite like secrecy for generating injustice. (That is why England did in their infamous Star Chamber in the 1640's.)

To encourage denunciations, hesitant accusers are urged to "...bring the problem confidentially to the attention of the Affirmative Action Officer, without fear of any retaliation, humiliation or recrimination." The Guide even reassures those contemplating this maneuver, "Retaliation in any form (emphasis added)against a complainant who has exercised his or her right to make a complaint under this policy is strictly prohibited, even if the investigation concludes that no sexual harassment has occurred (emphasis added), and will be cause for appropriate discipline, up to and including discharge." In other words, you can even bring false charges and risk little or nothing. Falsely denounce someone and risk little or nothing. Now there is an incentive for evil.

Let's now examine the rights of the accused. The Guide advises, "The alleged harassor will be given an opportunity to respond to the allegations, but ordered not to confront or retaliate against the complaining person concerning the allegations. When possible, neutral witnesses will be interrogated [again, confidentially]."

Is their a different tone here? The alleged victim is encouraged, even prompted to denounce, the accused has "an opportunity to respond," but...".

What is the accused permitted while making this "response?" Pretty much what was permitted by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy during his Senate hearing days. Unable to confront their accuser; never knowing what has been said about them during secret interrogations; not being permitted to question so-called neutral witnesses; being denied a record of the proceedings; the accused is permitted to deny the allegation — provided he takes it lying down.

Lastly, the accused is guilty if the investigator decides guilt is "...more likely than not." In other words, the accused can be found guilty enough. By whom? By the investigator, of course. (Never mind that this bureaucrat's job security may depend on unearthing a "harasser" now and then.)

By the way, the complaining person is assured that all documents "will be expunged" from their record that might have been "tainted" by the harassment. But if the alleged harasser is found innocent, there are NO guarantees that his/her personnel file will be similarly "expunged." How's that for fairness?

Secret denunciations, clandestine hearings, immunity for traducers, trashing reasonable doubt, all are thought necessary to offset the purported victim's fear of retaliation. Of course, such procedures also encourage false charges from people who are just plain nuts or vindictive. The thought must be that, given the urgency of the sexual harassment problem, justice is something we just can't afford.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Oppositional Disorder

Oppositional Disorder

The original version was published in  educational Horizons

©2021 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/16/2021 

See, also, Poisoning Educational Practice

Once upon a time parents said to lack the courage and/or interest to set limits and impose responsibilities were thought to produce ‘spoiled’ children. "Brat" was the common parlance. Happily, it’s now known that a child's upbringing has little or nothing to do with such an unwelcome outcome. Children who behave like "spoiled brats" really are suffering from “oppositional disorder.”

Yes, indeed, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, oppositional disorder’s symptoms include:

(1) violations of minor rules 
(2) temper tantrums 
(3) argumentativeness 
(4) provocative behavior 
(5) stubbornness

No wonder kids afflicted with this ailment are often thought of as ‘brats.’ The malady mimics brattiness with uncanny accuracy. That’s precisely how it escaped detection until the late 20th Century. Today, however, there is a growing awareness of the disorder's existence. So enlightened parents who used to "cure" Johnny by sending him to bed without supper, now realize that he needs: clinical diagnosis via psychological testing and assessment, chart notes, a case history, test reports, psychotherapy and/or behavior therapy possibly combined with psychopharmacological treatment using drugs such as: Ritilin, Xanax, Librium, Klonopin, Tranxene, or Valium.

This syndrome is not easily grasped by the unenlightened. I certainly misunderstood my own children's symptoms. I remember the time I asked my adolescent son to take out the trash. He rather snottily retorted, "Why should I?" I emphatically replied, "Because I'll kick your butt if you don’t’ He responded, ”That’s a good reason!" and took out the trash. At the time I thought I was following the Biblical admonition to raise up a child in the way he should go. I now realize he required treatment, not threats. 

In adult life the young man in question has been doing very well. Still, I suspect his college major, philosophy, and his minor, art history, were symptomatic of oppositional disorder. Plus I’m certain this infirmity was why, in high school, he cut gym class, refused to join the Young Republicans, disliked Pat Boone, opined that Reverend Oral Roberts was a con man, and refused to wear a pocket protector. Now I worry that this insidious malady might, like the shingles virus, lye dormant within him just waiting to re-erupt and cause more trouble.

Social Neanderthals claim kids ‘diagnosed’ as disordered typically need little more than smart love, consistent limits and a good old-fashioned spanking if their disobedience nearly gets them killed. But the enlightened realize such close calls are really a cry for help. 

Reactionaries opine that the therapeutic model is popular because it lets weak-willed parents off the hook, enriches clinicians, and pumps up big pharma’s profits. But the enlightened have come to realize "brattiness" is an outdated, even dangerous, coprolite of a by-gone era that must be abandoned in favor of the therapeutic. 
To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Blocks School Improvement

Before No Child Left Behind was even a glint in the nation's eye, Bill Clinton proposed Goals 2000 (the Educate America Act)in the early years of his first term. Originally its focus was on the formulation of national educational standards; but this emphasis quickly failed. What happened?

Education Week claims “Fears that the program would lead to federal control over local curriculum decisions drove Congress, governors and school administrators to move Goals 2000 away from its standards emphasis toward a loosely affiliated series of projects and computer purchases.” But was fear of federal control the real bugbear?

I don’t think so. We shy away from meaningful national education standards because every attempt at their formulation collides with the elemental fact that there is no consensus regarding what American kids should know and be able to do; nor is there agreement on how they should do it. When we launch national educational goal setting efforts, they inevitably founder on this rock of disagreement.

An alternative, imposed by No Child Left Behind, is to require states to set standards. But that doesn't alter the fact that there is little or no deep agreement at the state level. As soon as state legislators begin to define the details the whole thing tends to either break down into acrimonious haggling or we end up with standards that lack broad public support.

What about generating standards at the level of the 16,000 plus school districts? After all districts are often far more uniform than entire states can be. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of districts deep agreement still is non-existent. Try to reach agreement on any truly fundamental matter, say at a school board meeting, and just watch blood pressures rise as consensus evaporates.

This fundamental lack of agreement concerning the means and ends of public schooling is the basic reality that has troubled, presently troubles and will continue to trouble every serious effort at school improvement. The only way to generate consensus, and it will be a superficial one at that, is by formulating goals that are so vague as to be practically useless.

Google a sample of school district mission statements and see for yourself. Every one of them will rely on happy talk and buzz words. In this way a shallow and practically useless consensus is maintained. And as soon as we press for details the whole thing falls apart.

What is to be done? Continue to concoct superficial, warm and fuzzy goals and then ignore them when real work needs to be done.

Trouble is that strategy puts real pressure on superintendents, principals and, especially, teachers. That's because the closer you get to actual classroom practice the more useless, or even counterproductive, vague goals become. When its time to teach reading, for example, detailed decisions have to be made. That's why every classroom teacher should adopt Harry Truman's motto, "THE BUCK STOPS HERE!"

To further examine these and related issues, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Monday, September 8, 2008

School Reform? Let's Ask Teachers

When it comes to school reform, corporate cheifs get their say, congress and president's make epic decisions. governors set statewide policy, bureaucrats imposes rules and regulations, superintendents hatch and enforce procedures, and opinion makers declare all manner of 'truths.' But there is one critical voice that is rarely heard. It is that of the classroom teacher.

Everyone feels free to fault teachers, but who troubles to ask them, "What do you think"? This state of affairs is a sign of fundamental disrespect. And it's a disprespect that powerholders had better get over if school improvement is really what they are up to, because nothing good is going to happen without the wholehearted cooperation of frontline teachers.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Limits of Multiculturalism

A quarter of a century ago a friend of mine was growing up in a largely Italian-American working class section of Baltimore. Because he liked school, succeeded in his studies and enjoyed reading, he found himself the subject of merciless bullying and negative peer pressure. So pervasive was the anti-intellectual attitude of the community that when a competitive full college scholarship was offered to young people from this particular environment, my colleague, who had persevered in his interests, won it by default. There were no other applicants!

I asked my friend, “What would have happened to you had an emphasis on “multi-culturalism” further legitimized the community’s hostility toward learning?” He responded, “I imagine I would have begun selling numbers, or even become a gang member. And I suppose, if I was lucky enough to avoid involvement with organized crime, I would have ended up as some of my relatives did, surreptitiously expressing their anger by urinating in the pizza sauce of a local restaurant where they had found marginal employment.”

Anti-school attitudes are or were common in many ethnic or racial communities. For instance, we are all aware of the difficulties serious students experience in many African-American neighborhoods. Earnest students are often accused of “acting white.” And there is plenty of “encouragement” (read coercion) to forget school and just “hang” on the corner. What are we to make of this in the context of “multiculturalism?” Shall we, in our desire to accommodate or celebrate other cultures and other ways of life, embrace this value? Should we smile benignly at just “kicking back” and “being cool?”

There is also the matter of bribery to consider. A front page article in the Philadelphia Inquirer described how many Italians have become concerned about Italy’s national character. It seems that bribes recently have become a part of everyday life, not just the customary politics. This trend is making life in Italy more and more unpleasant. We all know that the “greasy palm” is not unique to Italy. Bribery is a way of life in many cultures. Does “multiculturalism” require us to celebrate, or at least wink at, such behavior if it is transplanted from foreign soil?

There is also the matter of the treatment of women. A recent episode of the real action T.V. show “Cops” featured a domestic disturbance. The “cops” arrived to find an enraged and bloodied Latino woman and her teenage daughter confronting the woman’s battering, common-law husband. The husband readily confessed to having thrashed his wife, explaining that she had not prepared his dinner for three days running and that in his culture of origin, this negligence required a beating. Failing to do so, he explained, would emasculate him. The beaten wife called the police at the insistence of her Americanized daughter, who had convinced her mother that no woman should ever endure such abuse. Wife beatings are an accepted part of many civilizations. Does “multiculturalism” require us to accept or even celebrate this fact? And if school officials helped the daughter redefine how women should react to beatings, was this a disservice to her, her mother, or even her father?

France recently had a national fracas over another “multicultural” matter affecting women. African immigrants had brought their practice of clitorectomy with them. When French authorities learned that an immigrant woman had had her 13 year-old daughter’s clitoris excised so that she would never experience sexual pleasure, they arrested her for child abuse. Tribal members were furious, alleging that the French authorities were destroying their culture. Would “multiculturalism” require them to take no action or even to celebrate this mutilation?

In India it is common for pregnant women to have ultra-sound testing in order to determine the sex of the unborn. Females are then aborted because they are unwanted. How about arranged marriages or the fact that some languages (like Korean) have female deference built in? Are these the sorts of things we want to hold most worthy or should we give precedence to the emancipation of women?

We need also to consider intolerance. Many cultures partially define themselves via traditional conflicts with, and intolerance of, others. Is it acceptable for Palestinian-Americans to define themselves in terms of antipathy toward Jewish-Americans or vice-versa? And what about the anti-Korean feelings of some African-Americans? Is the destruction and looting of an estimated 5,000 businesses justified if black L.A. street culture endorses it? Consider also the bigoted intolerance of religious extremists like David Koresh. Did “multiculturalism” require us to celebrate the Branch Davidian’s dogmatic exclusionism? Did it require us to honor Koresh’s sexual claims on all the women (and post eleven year old girls) in that community?

Does “multiculturalism” include an appreciation of the Skinheads or the Klan? Shall we be charmed when Vietnamese-Americans express hatred toward Cambodian-Americans or when Korean-Americans define themselves in terms of their contempt for Japanese-Americans? This sort of intolerance is a common feature of many of the world’s cultures; and it is a particular feature of such truly “multicultural” places as Yugoslavia.. Yet such intolerance destroys the very tolerance that makes “multiculturalism” possible. How shall we reconcile this contradiction?

Even relatively tolerant cultures reject members of other cultures in order to preserve their own integrity. Consider the Jew who views marriages to non-Jews as a “problem.” It is a “problem” from the standpoint of perpetuating Judaism. But intolerance toward someone whom one’s daughter or son might truly love is also a problem for most of us who place a high value on our common humanity. Shall we celebrate such exclusionism in order to honor human differences? Should Jews give up being Jewish in order to embrace “multiculturalism?”

We also should remember that, as the old saying goes, “What is sauce for the goose, is often gall for the gander” For example, at North Carolina Central University, the oldest state-supported black public university in the nation, student responses to multicultural initiatives were broadly negative. Fully 74% of the students polled said they were “somewhat” to “greatly concerned and disapproving” of the university becoming more racially/ethnically diverse. Many indicated they were opposed to “anyone other than African-Americans,” which means excluding even Africans. Enthusiasm for Black colleges would seem a logical outgrowth of “multiculturalism.” How, then, shall we understand the fact that they seem to harbor and possibly encourage the very exclusionism “multiculturalism” seeks to avoid? Perhaps by considering that any far-reaching “multiculturalism” could well be self-defeating. After all, once we are all divided into little in-groups, who will be left to urge inclusivism?

“Multiculturalism” is easy if we avoid the tough issues. Just stick to relatively trivial things like the Frugal Gourmet’s celebration of ethnic foods or everyone’s wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. Then conflict is minimized. Try to go beyond that, however, and the slogan soon slams against the sort of limits illustrated above.

Mindless chauvinism and knee-jerk negativity toward anything or anyone who is different has bred much misery. And the best possibility of “multiculturalism” is that in carefully adjusted amounts it will help us check this sort of hatred and intolerance. A bit too much, however, and we are headed down the same road as the former Yugoslavia.

There is much to be gained by trying to learn from cultures different from our own. And this is true even if such openness is only a one-way street. But we risk national unity if we continue to play with “multiculturalism” uncritically. The sloganistic and essentially mindless (or merely opportunistic) definitions of the day lead inevitably to disunity and acceptance of nearly everything. And if you allow all, you stand for NOTHING.

To examine these issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Monday, August 25, 2008

Let's Test the Politicians

No Child Left Behind's emphasis on one-size-fits-all standardized testing alarms many. But the cure for this federally induced craze may be to require passing standardized tests of every political candidate. If you don’t pass the test, you can’t join the fest. And to make sure no deserving individual escapes our net, aspiring high level government appointees, such as the Secretary of Education to be, would also have to pass the test battery. The best way to go about this testing would be to make the punishment fit the crime. This means requiring every aspiring office holder to take the same tests he prescribes for others. Before being allowed to run for President, for example, Dubya would have had to pass the self-same tests he championed for highschoolers. Ten to one he couldn’t pass. This plan really gets juicy when it’s applied to political appointees that have educational responsibilities. Let's require every aspiring state Secretary of Education to pass the battery of tests they require of aspiring teachers. Here in Pennsylvania, for example, he or she would have to pass separate NTE tests in Reading, Writing, Listening Skills, (there's a tough one for these chaps) Mathematics and Principles of Teaching and Learning. We might also want to add a content specialty test in their college major (secondary educators have to take these) or, alternatively, tests in Elementary Ed: Content and Curriculum — since they presume to tell elementary teachers what to do and when to do it. I for one, think that few chief state school officers could pass what they now prescribe. After all, they’re usually politically connected B.S. artists, not professionally trained educators. The beauty of this hoist them on their own petard approach should be apparent. Officials will typically be reluctant to mandate any testing because they too will have to take whatever they prescribe. An alternate plan is to design brand new tests for those aspiring to high office. This would be expensive and involved, but it might be worth it. We could turn to ETS and the Psychological Corporation to devise the test. They would have to craft enough items for multiple versions of the test since cheating is a particular concern.) No Child Left Behind's emphasis on one-size-fits-all standardized testing is a concern of many. But the cure for this federally induced malady may be the hair of the dog. In other words, require every political candidate to pass a battery of standardized tests to be eligible for office. If you don’t pass the test, you can’t join the fest. And to make sure no deserving individual escapes our net, we will require aspiring high level government appointees, such as the Secretary of Education to be, to also pass the test battery. One way to go about this testing would be to require every aspiring office holder to take the same tests he/she prescribes for others. Before being allowed to run for President, for example, Dubya would have had to pass the self-same tests he championed for high schoolers. Do you think he could pass? And imagine requiring every aspiring state Secretary of Education to pass the battery of tests they propose requiring of aspiring teachers. In Pennsylvania, for example, he or she would have to pass separate NTE tests in Reading, Writing, and Listening Skills, (The later would be a tough one for these chaps.). An alternate plan is to design brand new tests for those aspiring to high office. We could turn to ETS or the Psychological Corporation to craft enough items for multiple versions of the test since cheating would be a particular concern. Test items would be finalized only after a painstaking vetting. Committees both inside and outside these non-profit firms would appraise and reappraise every question. In the end we might have items roughly like these: 1. Given an unprecedented federal budget deficit, the very worst course of action would be to: a. borrow money to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure b. cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans c. privatize Social Security d. tighten the nation's belt and spend only what we have 2. If an attractive intern offers oral sex a public official should: a. quickly take him or her up on it before he or she changes their mind b. agree, but be sure to be discreet c. politely decline d. sask them what they mean by "sex." 3. If, as President, you plan to have our schools emphasize “character education,” the best model to base the curriculum on would be: a. J. Edgar Hoover b. Richard Nixon c. Bill Clinton d. none of the above 4. Should a terrorist attack against the US originate in country A, the best course of action would be to: a. invade country B b. invade country C c. invade country A d. invade some damn body Admittedly, on a test like this dishonest answers would be a problem. Safeguards are required. One possibility is to administer the test while test-takers are hooked up to lie detectors. Imagine a candidate sweating and squirming as the polygraph relentlessly tells the tale. “Is that your actual answer? Is that your final honest answer?” (Philadelphia’s infamous late Duce/Mayor Frank Rizzo once failed a lie detector test while trying to prove the device’s reliability. Evidently the polygraph was more discerning than the voters.) Alternatively, we could inject test-takers with scopolamine, a truth serum favored by secret policemen the world over. The test would be administered orally as the subjects drift guilelessly on a tripped out cloud. Regardless of the method, however, we must be absolutely certain that our subjects are answering truthfully. And we should keep in mind that most of them would be unaccustomed to doing this. That, in broad outline, is the plan. But it needs filling in. That’s where you can help. Tell us what you think. Should aspirants for public office take the same tests they prescribe for others, or should they be required to take brand new custom designed tests? If so should we measure wisdom, rectitude, practical knowledge, educational expertise, sexual cravings or what? And should we test just once, or longitudinally every year the person is in office? (Longitudinal testing has the obvious advantage of measuring whether or not the subject is improving while “serving.”) You also might like to suggest specific test items. They need not be multiple choice as exemplified in this commentary. Any types of questions typically found on standardized tests are welcome. Rush your comments and suggestions to The Worm Turns Foundation, c/o Newfoundations, P.O. Box 94, Oreland, PA 19075, or post them here. To examine these issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Index of Leading Educational Indicators

Way too much is made of standardized test scores. Public officials worry over them the way a hypochondriac frets about his bowel movements. Politicians point to them as if they were the pronouncements of Moses. School officials anticipate their public unveiling as a condemned man awaits his own execution.

All of this is more than passing odd. At their best, standardized tests indirectly measure trivial things. They tell us nothing at all about whether schooling is having a positive impact on the way children will live their lives.

Many admit the weaknesses of high stakes tests, but still argue for their administration. They say, “We need some measure of school effectiveness.” But there already are widely available measures that offer a much better measure of educational progress. All we need do is start monitoring them.

Let's call this compilation the Index of Leading Educational Indicators. Here is a preliminary list. Keep in mind, it is tentative and subject to amendment.

Here is an enormously powerful index of schooling's effectiveness. Count the number of adults regularly viewing, say, professional wrestling, for example, and we are measuring how badly schooling has failed. The same thing applies to "Jerry Springer." The higher his Nielsons, the gloomier we should be about the nation's schools. If, on the other hand, viewership is high for, say, National Geographic Specials, History Channel or Discovery Channel, there is reason for optimism.

Here I’m thinking of keeping tabs on the sales figures of various musical artists and genres. Like the popularity of paintings of Elvis on black velvet, it reveals a great deal about schooling’s success. We could, for example, compare gangsta rap music sales with classical music sales. Our schools surely have failed miserably if most consumers prefer Snoop Doggy Dog to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Biggy Small to Frederick Chopin.

Every Jonestown resident who eagerky swigged lethal Cool Aid represented a schooling failure. So did the men in David Koresh's cult who allowed Dave to sexually service their wives and daughters because, as Koresh patiently explained to them, he was the only man pure enough for the job. And what about the schooling of that Heaven's Gate crowd who had themselves castrated to conform with "Bo" and "Peep's" teachings, then "left their containers" to rendezvous with a space ship concealed behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Maybe all such followers should have repeated first grade.

The sales figures of these grotesque gazettes provide a far more valid measure of educational progress than anything ETS could dream up. I'm talking about those papers that headline things like "WOMEN COMMITS SUICIDE IN DISHWASHER!", or "HALF BOY, HALF DOLPHIN WASHES UP ON BEACH!" Of course, tabloid sales figures are an inverse measure of educational progress.

The income figures of bunko artist TV preachers, available from the IRS Tax Exempt Branch, are a sure measure of schooling's effectiveness. The more money they make, the less well our schools have done. Consider the chap who lapses into "trances" while conducting worship services. The Holy Spirit then allegedly uses the preacher's vocal apparatus to speak to the congregation. The reverend claims he has no idea what the Spirit says. He has to ask the congregation after he regains consciousness. The amount of money sent to guys like this should be monitored carefully because it is an inverse measure of school effectiveness.

Imagine visiting a psychic to decide who and when you should marry, if the one you love loves you, or how to make a person at a distance think of you. That many people seriously do this is a telling measure of schooling's ineffectiveness.

It’s encouraging when people read books at all. But the quality of the books on this best-sellers list testifies eloquently about schooling's success or failure. A few years ago, for example, millions of folks found it plausible to think that God had secretly constructed his own seek and find word game in the Holy Bible. The teachers of those who took The Bible Code seriously might prefer suicide over living with such failure.

Opinions on school reform provide irrefutable, if unintentional, proof that schools aren’t getting it done. Let’s keep tabs on these proposals. When they become better reasoned, more factual, less political and linked to conditions outside of school we’ll know our educational system is doing a better job.

Such an index is more powerful than anything Educational Testing Service or Psychological Corporation can contrive. But perhaps you are thinking that schools are not exclusively, even mainly, responsible for the presently dismal state of affairs such an index would reveal. You're thinking that some people lack native intelligence and can't be well taught and that others are too lonely, angry, scared, or what have you, to think straight. So what? Educators aren’t chiefly responsible for standardized test scores either. The point is to blame some one, and it might as well be people who haven’t shown a disposition to fight back.

How about suggesting additional measures so that we can perfect this Index of Leading Educational Indicators? Post your comments here.

To examine these issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Educational Reform Begins at Home

One of the most fundamental problems American teachers face is unloving, uncaring and/or unskillful parents. If you are a veteran teacher, you doubtless have had this experience. On Home and School day, or whatever it is called locally, the parents of your best students show up en masse. The parents of your most difficult students typically are no where to be found. Or, if they are there, reveal through their behavior why their child is a problem to begin with.

School critics demand "educational" reform. And when they do they intend that schooling should be the recipient of their tender mercies. But what is actually required is not mere school reform, but educational reform. And, at bottom, educational reform begins with better parenting. Parents are, after all, the preeminent educators of children.

Recognizing this reality is politically "incorrect." The party line is that child rearing practices vary from group to group and no one way of raising children is better than any other. This "nonjudgmental" view is fine so long as you don't have to accomplish anything with kids in school. If you do, however, it is another matter. When it comes to a child’s school success, there is NO substitute for caring, concerned parents who do their level best to insure that their children are well brought up.

It’s not hard to figure out why the parental dimension of "educational" reform is ignored. It’s a political minefield. Imagine the reaction if the President of the United States went on national television and told America's parents something like this,

“You parents are, far and away, your child’s most important teacher. That is why educational reform must begin with you. Too often you provide inappropriate examples or fail to provide adequate love, limits, direction or support. No child asks to be born and when you bring life into this world you have a non-negotiable obligation to nurture and properly direct that life. That means you must sometimes sacrifice for your child, but that is what good parenting has always required. And don’t expect teachers, or anyone else, to do this for you. This is one job that requires YOUR best effort.”

Such a message would not be popular with many, but it is long overdue.

To examine these issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Friday, August 15, 2008

First Rate Teachers: The Key to School Reform

Really want to improve American schooling? Here is the first and most essential step. Respect teaching and recognize that it requires special knowledge and skill. Teachers are the key participants in improving our schools: and nothing, or at least nothing good, will happen without strengthening their preparation and licensure. This is no pipe dream. Advances in the teaching knowledge base make it possible to transform teacher preparation into a meaningfully rigorous and truly empowering process. But instead of exploiting this unprecedented opportunity, state and federal officials have been fostering lax, disempowering short cuts into teaching. For instance, thirty eight states now offer so-called alternative certification programs. And most of these alternatives are so undemanding they virtually insure incompetence, indolence or both. And, depite deceptive rhetoric to the contrary, their sole purpose is to license “teachers” on the cheap. This lack of commitment to quality teacher preparatione betrays a lack of genuine commitment to school improvement. Instead of weakening already anemic certification requirements, officials who really were serious about school reform would forget about quickie alternatives to meaningful preparation and, while they were at it, decommision marginal teacher preparation programs at profiteering colleges who specialize in cut-rate certification programs. Serious school reformers would also stop appointing pedagogical simpletons to educational positions of power and influence. When billionaire Ross Perot was appointed to head up school “reform” in Texas, for instance, he was totally, perhaps invincibly, ignorant of the teaching and learning knowledge base. He had no clue about the research that disproved his own blustering encyclicals. And, emboldened by this ignorance, Perot and his accomplices in the Texas legislature made sure that Lone Star state teacher preparation would be brief and superficial. The liberal arts professoriate typified by former Secretary of Education William Bennett are another set of pedagogical ignoramuses who have great influence on teacher preparation. What did Bennett know about schooling, teaching or learning that qualified him to become the nation’s Secretary of Education? Or how about Lynne Cheney, former Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of the Darth Vader of the Bush administration. As Chair of the NEH, Cheney routinely supported alternative teacher certification while assuring us that an academic education was not only necessary but sufficient for teacher preparation. A large body of research contradicts her assertion. Most scary of all are the big-city school district bosses that want to train their own teachers. What sort of teacher do you think they long for? The same sort of coal miners, coal barons longed for ot the same sort of steel workers the steel barons longed for. Compliant, docile and predictable. With big city school bosses in charge of preparing their own teachers you can be utterly certain that whatever else these aspirants are trained to do, it won’t be to disagree with what these schools are presently doing. Those who care about teaching can be forgiven a certain indignation at the influential trifling of educational incompetents. As the famed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead puts it: When one considers in its length and breadth the importance of a nation’s young, the broken lives, the defeated hopes, the national failures, which result from the frivolous inertia with which (education) is treated, it is difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage” Alfred North Whitehead The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929) p.22. Some say that that arguments of this sort are just a “special interest” of college based teacher educators who are merely “protecting their guild.” But are the interests of teacher educators more “special” than any other human being who cares about what they do. And remember, it took guilds, with their rigorous training, to build enduring masterpieces such as Europe’s great cathedrals. Master glass workers or stone masons certainly didn’t invite “creative, idealistic and enthusiastic” people in off the street to try their hand at stained glass or stone carving. They were unrelenting in their apprenticeship requirements and the results speak for themselves. Mos To examine these issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Perils of Deregulating Schooling: the charter school example

The same sort of people who loosened the government rules that regulated airlines, trucking and savings and loans in the 1980'sare working to eliminate many rules concerning teaching and schooling. These “reformers” claim that removing government regulations and encouraging competition will encourage school improvement.

They assure us that deregulating teaching will open up a whole new source of talent. Opening public schools to competition will drive out the bad schools, encourage innovation and make educators responsive to the need for change. David Kearns, former chairman of Xerox and highly placed Bush appointee to the U. S. Department of Education, puts it this way, “Public schools acting as monopolies are failing. Providing choice means allowing schools to compete with one another for the most valuable of assets: students.” (Kearns fails to consider that some kids will inevitably be regarded as liabilities. Hopefully he had better foresight when he headed up Xerox)

As the fires of competition purify pedagogy many schools and teaching jobs will perish. That is part of the plan. When he was Governor of Minnesota, Rudy Perpich described this social Darwinism with suitable detachment when he observed: “...[Failed schools] will file for ‘bankruptcy’ like any other business.” We are assured, however, that the only schools forced into bankruptcy will be those that fail to become more effective. “Effective” at what? The meaning of that slogan is left to our imagination. Hopefully, it will not be "effective" in seducing the masses or confirming our worst prejudices.

It is not difficult to determine why reformers long for public schooling to be cleansed by competition. Too many school districts, particularly large urban ones, echo the worst aspects of the former Soviet Union. Some of these conditions are caused by too many regulations. But let's not kid ourselves. Even a conservative Republican should be able to recognize that most school problems will not be alleviated by deregulation. Consider the underfunding of urban schools. City schools have the nation's largest number of needy students, yet every year they are starved for money. Deregulation doesn't address, much less resolve, this and other systemic problems rooted in out of school realities.

And let's not forget the costs of deregulation. WHen the Reagan administration deregulated Savings and Loans,for example, taxpayers eventually had to pay a half trillion dollars to bail them out of self-induced catastrophe. Now, in Philadelphia, PA, where there is an unusual concentration of 61 charter schools, the costs of this particular deregulation are bubbling to the surface. They include mismanagement, corruption, profiteering, conflicts of interest and self-dealing, In short, deregulation has been accompanied by alarming abuses. Raise your hand if you find that surprising.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

-- GKC

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Triumph of the School as Factory

It has been well over one hundred years since this nation embarked on the breathtakingly ambitious venture of universal public schooling. The costs of this endeavor quickly proved to be extraordinarily burdensome, and it was decided early on to carry it out in as cost effective a manner as possible. The consequence of this push for efficiency was public schools modeled on factories with an emphasis on mass production and cost-effectiveness, rather than democracy or individuality.

For the most part, today’s public schools still are factories. In fact, the organization and management that typifies the most unenlightened factories characterizes much, if not most, public schooling. Management is top-down all the way. The federal government sets basic rules. State authorities implement them while adding many more rules. School boards make decisions based on these federal and state rules plus fiscal and political realities. The superintendent executes the will of the board. Principals tell teachers what to do and when to do it; and they, in turn, direct the youngsters in similar manner.

Sometimes this industrial approach produces monstrously undemocratic results. A past Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, for example, boasted to the press that she could tell them what was happening in every classroom in the city at any given moment. What was actually happening was administratively induced chaos because the standardized, teacher-proof curriculum was incapable of accommodating individual differences. For instance, second grade teachers found they were forbidden to use anything other than second grade readers and the canned lesson of the day even if some of those second grade kids still couldn’t read. Similarly, seventh grade math teachers were forced to ‘teach’ algebra to kids who couldn’t even do fractions or long division, and so forth.

With this superintendent, as with many others, autonomy, freedom and choice are low, or non-existent, priorities. The industry is focused on standardization, teacher proofing and measured outcomes. We should also remember that there is a powerful new restriction on autonomy, freedom, choice, and democracy in schooling. With its emphasis on measurable results, quality control, instrumental and extrinsic motivations, atomization and fragmentation of knowledge, No Child Left Behind represents the near total triumph of factory model schooling in contemporary America. In short, the whole weight of the federal government arc welds the school as factory in place as never before.

To examine these issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Christa McAuliffe's Death and Reagan's Reelection

Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher and mother of two, was the "first citizen passenger" scheduled to go into space. Superficially, the presence of a teacher was to signify America's high regard for teaching and schooling.

Unknown to Christa McAuliffe, however, the more basic mission was aiding President Reagan's reelection. A teacher in Challenger was the cheapest way of making the incumbent President look like a supporter of teachers and schooling even though he had set out to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and was making drastic cuts in the Federal education budget.

When the decision was made to launch a Teacher-in-Space, the Reagan-Bush re-election campaign was already underway. Reagan-Bush was known to be vulnerable to Mondale-Ferraro on several issues. One of the most important was education. Mondale effectively highlighted Reagan's "second-rate leadership" that produced "an appalling record" of “educational neglect.” His campaign issued a "report card" on Reagan educational policy that gave the President "F's" in everything but dramatics and sports.

Shortly after Mondale launched this offensive a Gallup Poll revealed that a large majority of Americans thought Mondale more likely than President Reagan to improve public schooling. This pro Mondale trend concerned Reagan campaign officials. They felt the President needed to recapture at least some of the "education vote?" To do so they planned a counter offensive. It was launched on August 27, 1984.

While speaking at a District of Columbia junior high school, the President first announced several new members of his Advisory Council on Education. That was a warm-up. Then he proudly told the world who America's first passenger in space would be. "Today" the President said" I'm directing NASA to begin a search in all of our elementary and secondary schools and choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program one of America's finest — a teacher. One year later Christa McCauliffe was selected from over 11,000 applicants.

Late Night THoughts on the Death of Christa McCauliffe

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


John Dewey famously argued that children learn what they live. For instance, teachers can talk at youngsters about the virtues of democracy, but if they live in a despotic school, they will learn to tolerate despotism.

This line of reasoning seems compelling, but in the real world things work more subtly. The person who taught me most about the value of freedom and democracy, for example, was my despotic forth grade teacher. Feared by all, she extorted compliance by very credible threats and actual violence.

She finally went too far, even for those antediluvian times, when she held a youngster against a very hot steam radiator until he demonstrated sufficient servility. His burns got her transferred to another school. But not before she taught me how dangerous unrestrained power really is and how precious is control over one’s own life.
A similar thing sometimes happened in the good old days of Catholic schooling when some nuns occasionally bullied, slapped or otherwise humiliated children. Presumably, what these nuns had in mind by not sparing the rod was making better Catholics. But the actual consequences were often to turn some kids off, not just with regards to Catholic schooling, but Catholicism altogether.

The point is that what we learn in school is often contrary to what the instructor or administrator intends. Imagine, for instance, a ‘free and democratic’ classroom where chaos makes learning difficult, and where vast amounts of faculty and student time are spent mediating petty disputes. Some students might come away from such an experience longing for a strong leader who would end the chaos and quickly settle petty disputes. In short, poorly managed democratic classrooms could make some kids eager for despotism.

So when it’s said that children learn what they live, keep in mind that this learning might be other than what is intended.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Difficulties of Schooling for the Future

Most of us have seen articles in popular magazines that attempt to portray the future. How accurate are these prognostications? There is little room for optimism. Writers of the 1920's and 30's trying to look fifty years into the future, for instance, predicted bigger and faster airplanes, safer and more reliable cars, people commuting via autogyros or personal jet packs, and entire cities encased in plastic bubbles within which was a man-made environment of pristine perfection.

We now are beyond that “future.” To be sure, planes are even bigger and faster than predicted, but no one is whizzing to work in their own autogyro. Car are safer and more reliable than ever, but they are often gridlocked in traffic. Cities are not encased in plastic bubbles but in envelopes of noxious man-made effluvium that eats away at both person and property.

Yes, the futurists of the 20's and 30's only got some things right when they speculated about the material future. And there are other things these futururists tended to miss altogether. They rarely anticipated the changes in race relations that have since occurred. They did not imagine the change in attitude toward the handicapped, gays, sexual behavior, the pill or opportunities for women. As a matter of fact, the people depicted in the illustrations accompanying those old time futuristic articles were all white and able-bodied with the women smiling happily in kitchens of the future.

Why did the popular writers of the 20's and 30's commonly dream of sleeker cars and more efficient kitchens but not of a more humane and compassionate America? Why was it unexceptional for them to predict faster planes but exceptional for them to visualize anything like the Voting Rights Act? Because they took much of their culture for granted. In fact it was transparent to them. That’s just the way things were.

We too are like that. We also take aspects of our culture as a given, yet many of the things we never question, perhaps never notice, will change in the future. That’s the difficulty of schooling children for the future. We can’t really imagine what that future will be like. Perhaps educators should be satisfied with preparing students for the present. That's hard enough.

To examine these issues further, see Dissecting School Benefits: a typology of conflicting goals

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Raising Adolescents: The Myth of Control

As a girl of my acquaintance emerged into adolescence, her parents relentlessly tried to control her behavior. Each time she did something they disapproved of they vainly tried to reestablish the control they had over her in childhood. The daughter responded by becoming ever more disobedient and devious. The escalation ended in an unwanted pregnancy, abortion, bitterness and estrangement. In short, the costs to all involved far exceeded the benefits.

There is a moral to this story — one every parent of an adolescent needs to know. Do not cling to the myth that you can still have the same level of control you had when your child was young. Such attempts are not only futile, but also counterproductive..

For good or ill, adolescents pretty much control their own lives particularly in today’s world Yes, those who respect their parent(s) often avoid doing things because they don’t want to embarrass or disappoint them. But this is something the adolescent, not the parent, chooses. Gentle parental influence remains, certainly; but being able to insure compliance is over forever.

To examine these issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Friday, July 11, 2008

Schools as Concentration Camps

Some schools resemble prisons. But others are more like concentration camps. In the November 1988 Readers Digest, for instance, former Secretary of Education William Bennett praises a principal who took over a troubled inner-city Washington, D. C. school. The first day of school this "educational leader" assembled the student body and, in Bennett's words, "... with practiced eye chose 20 potential troublemakers to help enforce her tough new standard of discipline."

Can you imagine? The school is out of control and the principal's solution is to put the bullies in charge! How is that like a concentration camp? Hitler's SS used bully boy inmates, called Kapos, to maintain order there too. Frankly,even a former Secretary of Education should be able to see how extraordinarily cruel and stupid such a policy is.

Perhaps Bennett was too busy working on his The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories to think the right and wrong of this one through.

To examine these issues further, see School Bullies

-- GKC

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Schools: What Limits Their Technological Transformation?

A recent article in the New York Times cheerily reports that in the schools of the future:
  • "students will use free Internet applications to complete their classroom assignments on school-issued laptops that also substitute for text books;"
  • "parents will use instant messaging to chat with teachers about their child's progress;"
  • "educators will track students' academic growth with sophisticated software that allows them to better tailor lessons and assignments to each youngster's achievement level."
Certainly, all of this is possible and more besides. But the realists among us recognize a fundamental limitation — the kids. They have to buy into these possibilities before technology can ever transform the process of schooling.

There is no guarantee that this buy in will happen. And this is particularly true of the schools that most urgently require transformation, the schools of our inner cities.

Here is a brief cautionary tale that makes this point. Once upon a time there was a Philadelphia inner city school that was technologically impoverished. Through some miracle several ancient classrooms were equipped with new computers. The following week, during class change, two male adolescents went into the classroom and chased one another across the desktops, trampling the computers in the process. There was no money for repairs or replacements. Thus ended all of the bulleted possibilities above.

For more detailed realistic considerations of educational issues, visit newfoundations.com

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What Do Online Courses Portend for Teachers and Teaching?

U.S. enrollment in online virtual classes is increasing with remarkable rapidity. Right now the level of enrollment is 22 times that of 2000 and shows every sign of continuing rapid growth. And this year, for the first time ever, on line enrollment reached the one million mark.

As this transformation progresses how will it impact teachers? It might mean job loss. And it at least means dramatic job change. Today only one percent of high school courses are taught online. But the Innosite Institute, a nonprofit thinktank, projects that 50% of all high school courses might be taught online by 2019. Perhaps that figure is inflated. So let's suppose that it will only half that That still means that in just eleven years one out of four high school course will be taught on line.

Why such rapid growth? Online instruction offers many advantages. Text books can be replaced by less expensive instructional packages with features and a level of student interest that individual teachers can never hope to match. Ability grouping, not to mention mass instruction, could become a thing of the past because online instruction permits every individual student to work at their own level in the same classroom. 

Tracking student progress becomes remarkably more detailed and individualized as well as much more efficient. Plus online instruction often works for kids who are turned off by traditional schooling. But effective implementation of this instruction implies vast change for teachers. Indeed, the role of the classroom teacher may well be transformed.

Online instruction may also cause unemployment for an appreciable number of teachers. In the first place, kids can learn on their own with minimal supervision. That appeals to school boards if it means lower instructional costs. Plus much of the growth in this type of instructionoccurs in newly minted virtual charter schools. And Morgan Stanley's experts say that these type "school"s will capture an increasing share of the U.S. education market as states encourage, rather than just permit, this type of instruction.

No one can predict the future with complete accuracy. But one thing seems certain. Online education promises major changes for schools, teaching and teachers.

For more on educational matters, including straightforward considerations of often avoided topics, visit newfoundations.com.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Why Teaching Critical Thinking Is a Farce

Critical Thinking About “Critical Thinking”

There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and nearly all of them boast that they teach ‘critical thinking.’ Google “critical thinking,” “school district,” and “mission statement” combined you get an astonishing 182,000 matches. Click on any of them and you will find page after page of heart-warming affirmations like this one from the Lordstown, Ohio School District: “We believe in the development of critical thinking skills.”

A commendable belief; but what would happen if critical thinking actually were effectively taught? Suppose the youngsters truly, seriously and boldly scrutinized their community and nation’s customs, principles, and beliefs. Suppose, for instance, they were encouraged to critically examine the authorities that most of us defer to in directing our lives and defining the good, the true, the beautiful? That would be critical thinking. But would educators who encourage this sort of analytical inquiry receive hearty congratulations or have to flee a rampaging mob of angry, torch-wielding villagers?

Let’s be clear that by critical thinking we do not mean mere logic chopping. The “these are the premises” and “this is a conclusion,” sort of thing. That kind of ‘critical thinking’ is generally harmless in that it rarely results in serious challenges to anything deeply believed. That is precisely why this is the common style of ‘critical thinking’ taught in school. 

By critical thinking we mean systematically reconsidering the deep assumptions that many, including parents, take to be true. We also include questioning basic authority — including sacred and semi-sacred documents and those who interpret them. Thinking critically has to include that sort of thing or it is hardly critical.

Some might argue that it isn't necessary to tackle these issues head on. That by teaching generic methods of thinking critically learners will, sooner or later, bring these tools to bear on those deep assumptions and basic authorities that are central to their lives. But too many things can interfere with this transfer of learning to rely on it. If you want young people to really think critically, it is far better to provide them with a direct and well focused opportunity to do so. Just be prepared to find another job shortly thereafter. 

Is this excessively cynical. No, not at all. Take a look at what's going on in Florida where a single complaint from a parent with an obviously limited intellect can result in book banning. Where any lesson that might distress a student, make them feel guilty for instance, is now legally verboten. And this style of thought policing is so popular that their governor is able to make a serious bid for the presidency of the United States. 

It's impossible to think critically without it being potentially upsetting. Serious thought is, by its very nature, unsettling. That's the price we must pay for actually growing up instead of intellectually and emotionally remaining a child.

-- GKC

EQUAL SCHOOLING AS A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT: do we need an equal education amendment?

When the No Child Left Behind Act became law and when the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced it, Congress and President had their school reform priorities bassackwards. Before demanding these impossible results, they should have at least addressed the educational funding inequalities that insure millions of youngsters don't have a chance of achieving them. Instead they ignored the very inequalities that render their own goals ludicrous. And guess what? Their Every Student Succeeds Act still remains in effect.

How severe are the inequalities? Consider the School District of Philadelphia. About 4 out of 10 school age Philadelphia children live in poverty. And this financial neediness spawns profound educational deficits. Nevertheless, a typical Philadelphia high school students in, say, Roxborough High has $13,131 spent per year their education while high school students in neighboring Lower Merion HS have $26,793 spent on theirs. 

Sure, "throwing money at a problem won't necessarily solve it." That's true. But it's even more true that "you get what you pay for." And how many times have you heard that "throwing money" argument directed at defense spending? Ever?

 It would be one thing if such educational inequalities were confined to the Philadelphia area or even to Pennsylvania. But outrageous inequalities in per-student spending persist in district after district, and state after state. Nevertheless, federal politicians, who must be aware of this ridiculous situation, are still piously demanding that every student succeed. Their hypocrisy is truly breath taking, even by Washington standards. 

 Yes, there is federal tinkering that addresses with some of the symptoms of this grotesque inequality. But more than a century of the same inequality suggests that only a constitutional amendment would apply the consistent and persistent pressure necessary to actually achieve equalization. Plus such an amendment would bring federal judicial scrutiny, and that would pack the legal muscle necessary to insure compliance. 

What would an Equal Education Amendment look like? It might read something like this:

EQUAL EDUCATION AMENDMENT Section 1. Equality of Educational opportunity under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, sex, income or place of residence. Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Would an equal education amendment have sufficient support in Congress? That seems highly doubtful. Would the required two thirds of the states ratify it? Probably not. But just raising the issue of a constitutional amendment focuses attention on the inequities. 

 Who would oppose such an amendment? In a Republican dominated House and Senate, there should be no scarcity of opponents. And what would be their stated grounds of opposition? That an equal education amendment establishes excessive federal control over what are properly state and local matters. But that concern seems bogus. After all in the Bush years Republicans took the lead in the most massive federal infringement of state and local control of schooling in our history. The No Child Left Behind Act. 

 Probably the most potent source of opposition would come from those who benefit from the present inequalities. Barring massive new federal spending to raise raise all boats to the same level, the more advantaged states and communities would have to forfeit their present advantage and you can bet their representatives would oppose that. 

The federal government commands the necessary resources to provide every American child with equal educational opportunity. But to do this legislators and the White House would have to rearrange national priorities. We might, for example, have to invest far more in education and far less in the present warfare state. And this would threaten powerful defense industry types who paid to get these politicians elected in the first place. 

That gets us to the only real advantage of putting an Equal Education Amendment on the table; it forces hands and reveals agendas. It puts a question out there that most politicians dearly want to dodge. What is more important to you, providing every American child with equal educational opportunity, or serving the special interests you are presently beholden to? It’s high time that we ask that question and insist on a straight answer. -- GKC

Bad Apples or Sour Pickles? Misinterpreting the Columbine Massacre

While a few bad apples might spoil the barrel (filled with good fruit/people), a vinegar barrel will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles—regardless of the best intentions, resilience, and genetic nature of the cucumbers. So does it make more sense to spend resources to identify, isolate, and destroy bad apples or to understand how vinegar works . . . ?
—Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo

It was 11:19 a.m. on April 20, 1999 — Hitler’s 110th birthday—when Erik Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. Hoping to kill most of the 400-plus students eating at the time, the pair planted two twenty-pound bombs in the school cafeteria. Then they waited outside the building, hoping to pick off blast survivors as they staggered out.
When the bombs failed to detonate, the pair stormed into the cafeteria and opened fire. Forty minutes later twelve students and a teacher lay lifeless; another twenty-three students were wounded—many gravely. Harris and Klebold also were dead of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Police worked into the next day to find and deactivate the thirty bombs the pair had planted throughout the school ( Wickipedia: Columbine high school massacre ).

The FBI’s Bad Apples
What set Harris and Klebold off? The FBI’s team of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, including a Michigan State University psychiatrist and Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI’s chief Columbine investigator, and a clinical psychologist, assert that Harris killed because he was a “psychopath.” Klebold, they say, was “hotheaded, depressive, suicidal,” and under Harris’s influence.(Dave Cullen The depressive and the psychopath: At last we know why the Columbine killers did it. posted Tuesday, April 20, 2004.)
The FBI experts are not claiming that Harris was delusional or out of touch with reality. They are asserting that he was a world-class hater out to punish humanity for its inexcusable inferiority. Is the FBI correct? Was this horrific incident the evil spawn of a remorseless teenager with a world-class superiority complex and an angry, suicidal alter ego?

The Columbine Pickle Barrel
What was the situation at Columbine before the massacre? Was this high school one of those vinegar-filled barrels that transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles, or were Harris and Kleebold bad apples who spoiled an otherwise good barrel?
A painstaking investigative report by the Washington Post describes pre-massacre Columbine as filled with social vinegar. The high school was dominated by a “cult of the athlete.” ( Lorraine Adams and Dale Russakoff, Dissecting Columbine’s cult of the athlete, Washington Post, June 12, 1999, Page A-1.) In this distorted environment a coterie of favored jocks—who wore white hats to set themselves apart—consistently bullied, hazed, and sexually harassed their classmates while receiving preferential treatment from school authorities.
Other students hated the abuses of “the steroid poster boys” but could do little. A former student testified, “Pretty much everyone was scared to take them on; if you said anything, they’d come after you, too.”
Here is more of what the Post found was going on at Columbine:

Bullying was rampant and unchecked. For instance, a father told Post reporters about two athletes mercilessly bullying his son, a Jew, in gym class. They sang songs about Hitler, pinned the youngster to the ground and did “body twisters” on him until he was black and blue, and even threatened to set him on fire. The father reported the bullying to the gym teacher as well as who also was the wrestling coach, but it continued. When the father took his complaint to the guidance counselor, he says, he was told, “This stuff can happen.” The outraged father had to complain to the school board to get relief for his son.
Athletes convicted of crimes were neither suspended from games nor expelled from school. The homecoming king, a star football player, was on parole for burglary yet still permitted to play. Columbine’s state wrestling champ was allowed to compete despite being on court-ordered probation, and school officials did nothing when he regularly parked his $100,000 Hummer all day in a fifteen-minute parking space.
Sexual harassment by athletes was common and ignored. For example, when a girl complained to her teacher that a football player was making lewd comments about her breasts in class, the teacher, also a football and wrestling coach, suggested she change her seat. When an athlete loudly made similar comments at a Columbine wrestling match, the girl complained to the same coach and he suggested she move to the other side of the gym. Finally, the girl complained to a woman working at the concession stand, who called police. The next day a school administrator tried to persuade the girl’s mother to drop the charges, telling her that pressing them would prevent the boy from playing football. When the youngster was found guilty, he still was permitted to play.

Homicidal Anger

How important were these injustices to Harris and Klebold? Did they care about them, or even know about them? The facts are they both knew and cared profoundly. In fact, the Post reports that dozens of interviews and court records alike show that the pair’s homicidal anger “. . . began with the injustices of the jocks.”
They became convinced that favored athletes could get away with anything. For instance, a close friend reported that the pair saw a star athlete, in front of a teacher, forcefully shove his girlfriend into a locker. The teacher did nothing. Such injustices enraged Harris and Klebold. That’s why, just before opening fire in the cafeteria, they demanded that all the jocks stand up. They planned to kill them first.
In sum, pre-massacre Columbine High seems to have been the kind of place that “will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles.” The FBI’s experts clearly had fallen into something social psychologists call fundamental attribution error, which is falsely ascribing behavior to temperament or personality while underestimating the power of situational factors on the same behavior.

See ” at “Bad Apples or Sour Pickles? Fundamental Attribution Error and the Columbine Massacre
-- GKC